What's the bracket arithmetic this year? A total of 31 conferences will place an automatic qualifier in the NCAA tournament field. As the tourney now requires 37 at-large selections as part of an expanded 68-team format, there will be four opening-round games -- called the "First Four" -- played Tuesday and Wednesday in advance of the main bracket. These contests, to be held March 15-16 in Dayton, Ohio, will pair the last four at-large selections for two games and the last four automatic qualifiers in two more.
Why is that team listed from such-and-such conference? Teams listed in ALL CAPS followed by their conference name are the current league or RPI leaders (for the preseason bracket, the consensus postseason champion is listed). Teams from multiple-bid conferences, or teams that project to earn an at-large bid regardless of their league position, are listed without conference affiliation.
What is the RPI, anyway? And why do they use it? RPI stands for Ratings Percentage Index, a tool the NCAA uses in assembling championship fields in a host of sports. The RPI essentially combines winning percentage and schedule strength into a single formula to help compare teams from different conferences and regions. It has been used as an aid to the NCAA men's basketball committee since 1981. The formula was adjusted in 2004-05 to diminish the value of home-court victories while emphasizing road performance.
Who can't go where? Seton Hall (East), Tulane (Southeast) and Texas-San Antonio (Southwest) cannot be placed in their respective regions if they qualify or are selected for the 2011 NCAA field. Each school is hosting a regional final this season. South Florida (Tampa), Arizona (Tucson), Georgetown (Washington, D.C.), Charlotte, Cleveland State (Cleveland) and Tulsa are subregional hosts and would also be bracketed away from their respective sites.
Will teams allegedly play closer to home again this year? For the 10th time, the NCAA men's basketball committee will not predetermine the regional designation of each of the eight subregional sites (what it calls the "pod" system). This gives the committee increased flexibility to reduce travel for teams and fans, as well as create more local interest at subregional sites that may not be traditional basketball areas. For example, the subregional site in Washington, D.C. could send its winners to Anaheim (West Regional) instead of, say, the East Regional in Newark, if the committee thinks it makes more geographic sense for the teams involved.
Aren't there a ton of other bracketing rules to consider? Yes, and if you have three or four hours and some spare brain cells available, you can read them all here. Otherwise, you'll just have to trust me.
Didn't they re-seed the field the past few years? And won't that mess up my office pool? Clearly the most important questions of any season. The answers are "not really" and "definitely not." In a new procedure that began in 2004, the tournament committee makes public its internal ranking of the four No. 1 seeds, and their respective regions are then paired according to those rankings (No. 1 versus No. 4; No. 2 versus No. 3). No longer will the regions be paired in a rotating fashion (e.g., East versus West, Southeast versus Southwest) for the national semifinals. The idea is to prevent a matchup of the nation's two best teams before the national championship game if, as was the case three years ago, all four No. 1 seeds advance to the Final Four. Fortunately, since these determinations are made on Selection Sunday, the bracket -- and thus every "amusement-only" contest in the land -- is unaffected once the 68-team field is announced.
What else is new? The Midwest and South regions have been renamed Southeast and Southwest for this season, as the host cities (New Orleans and San Antonio, respectively) are more accurately described that way. It's also worth noting that there are two fewer Division I teams this year, with New Orleans and Winston-Salem State no longer competing at that level. There are also just four true independents -- Cal State Bakersfield, Longwood, Savannah State and Seattle -- as recent independents North Carolina Central and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville are now transitional members of the MEAC and OVC, respectively.
Joe Lunardi is the resident Bracketologist for ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio. He also teaches "Fundamentals of Bracketology" online at Saint Joseph's University. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.